Seen at the post-Cats Winter Garden: Mamma Mia!
. Oh, go ahead. You know you want to. The international musical hit that weds a skimpy book to 24 Abba numbers is indefensible on every ground, except that of a good time. Survivors of the 70s--and you know who you are--will find this to be great good fun. What lifts this production above the level of the typical tacky West End pop musical extravaganza is its surprisingly good taste. The book by Catherine Johnson is silly, but it is coherent and often amusing. The staging by Phyllida Law is clear, straightforward, and fast-moving. Mark Thompson's taverna setting is simple and attractive, and he has come up with a brace of mad-camp costumes, including some disco-era performing togs, and a witty set of wedding guest outfits. Howard Harrison's lighting is quite surprising--heretofore known for his over-reliance on saturated colors and cues that leave the audience half-blind, he provides relatively subtle work using a limited color palette. The sound by Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken isn't so much ear-splitting as it is nerve-shattering. The first downbeat of the entr'acte caused me to jump out of my seat.
Seen Off and Off Off Broadway: Light Years, by Billy Aronson, is an instantly forgettable campus comedy about four friends and their love and identity problems. (Is anyone still awake?). It's only worth noting for the Playwrights Horizons Studio production which, thanks to a set design by Narelle Sissons, is a model of how to design a three-set play in an unforgiving space with no budget. Sissons' box set slides and folds together as the action moves from a tiny dorm room to a bigger one, the outside for a graduation day sequence. There are many witty touches, including the boxes which dump debris over one set to give it a lived-in, sophomore-year look. This design is proof positive that no money shouldn't mean no design. The rest of the design work--costumes by Amela Baksic, lighting by Michael Lincoln, and sound by Laura Grace Brown--is all fine, but this production really gives Sissons a chance to shine.
Dragapella! stars the Kinsey Sicks, a self-described "beauty shop quartet" of drag queens who perform a capella parodies of pop tunes, with a few originals thrown in. You can guess the target audience from the song list, which satirizes, among other things, AIDS cocktails, lesbian sex, laws against gay marriage, and Celine Dion's mannerisms as a singer. Many of these numbers, and the accompanying patter, are pretty raunchy, although I rather loved an evil Bobby McFerrin homage titled "Don't Be Happy--Worry." Anyway, if the idea of a drag performer named Trampolina makes you laugh, this is the show for you. And there's no line for the ladies' room at intermission. Lauren Helpern and Traci Klainer are the real girls who have provided the fairly simple nightclub setting and lighting. Costume designers Steven Hoard and Bob Mill have apparently denuded the Garment District of any shiny, overly patterned fabrics, to create the Kinseys' clothes. Sound is by Brian Ronan.
Havana Is Waiting is about a gay Cuban-American playwright who returns to Cuba decades after his parents had him airlifted him out in the wake of Castro's revolution. It's an undeniably fascinating story, based on events in the life of author Eduardo Machado. Unfortunately, the lead character blames the airlift for all his problems, including his unhappy childhood, his lack of a lover, whatever. (He ought to check out a screening of Before Night Falls, to see just how well gay men have fared in Castro's Cuba). Anyway, Havana Is Waiting has an interesting set by Troy Hourie, a collection of architectural elements that spills out into the theatre. The production is gorgeously lit by Kirk Bookman, who creates a vivid sense of place thanks to his seductive use of color. His sensitive cueing also gives Havana Is Waiting the flow of a dream. The production also features costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy and sound by David M. Lawson.
Seen on the Tube: By now, word has gotten around that Scrubs is probably the best new sitcom of the season. The NBC show, which follows Frasier on Tuesday nights, plays almost as a parody of the network's ER. It follows first-year hospital interns Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, and Donald Faison as they deal with trying patients and feuding doctors John C. McGinley and Ken Jenkins. The show's fast pace, stylized sound effects and camera angles, and quick fantasy bits seem influenced by Malcolm in the Middle, but what makes it fresh is the smart writing, Braff's engaging presence, and McGinley's classic-in-the-making supporting work. As on ER, Cabot McMullen's hospital set is built to accommodate DP Richard Quinlan's mobile camerawork.
Over on the WB, Smallville takes off from the ingenious premise of placing Clark Kent/Superman's youth in modern-day middle America, and of having the handsome teenager face new supernatural challenges each week with his burgeoning superhuman powers. That said, I found the second episode of this hourlong Tuesday night show to be on the bland, ho-hum side, even if it did feature a boy morphing into a giant insect and devouring his mother in the process. Shot in Vancouver, the series looks like the first season of The X-Files crossed with Dawson's Creek. Every night exterior is bathed in a mysterious light source by DP Attila Szalay, and the battery of digital effects (supervised by Elan Soltes) have that unreal, on-the-quick and on-budget TV look. Joel Echallier's makeup effects are vivid.
As for this week's big-screen offerings, please don't make me talk about K-PAX. If you loved Phenomenon, and if you thought Patch Adams was just the most inspiring movie ever, then this is the picture for you. Becoming a star and winning a Best Actor Oscar are starting to look like the worst things that ever happened to Kevin Spacey. Those in the mood for a Halloween fright might want to look in on Bones, the Snoop Dogg vehicle (directed by former DP Ernest Dickerson) that received surprisingly positive reviews. I was going to catch a screening of 13 Ghosts last night, but I was too busy having fun with current and former ED and LD friends at the Half King bar. The movie got trashed by critics, but it does feature an elaborate all-glass haunted-house set by production designer Sean Hargreaves, with a lot of digital help from Cinesite.